2016 august 25 at AAWW: minsoo kang (left) is a professor of history and the translator of the story of hong gildong, an iconic korean classic, which also recently became the first korean classic published by penguin classics. ('BOUT TIME, PENGUIN.)
last night, the asian american writers' workshop hosted an event dedicated to hong gildong. first, authors marie myung-ok lee and min-jin lee gave brief talks about the significance of hong gildong to them. dr. kang then gave a brief but informative and hilarious presentation on hong gildong and had a conversation with ken chen, the director of AAWW.
this was so interesting, and i wish i could have gotten more down. dr. kang is working on a book on hong gildong, though, so there's that to look forward to!
also! he's working on a translation of a book about queen inhyun and jang heebin (the title of which eluded me), which i am so excited about!
(i only took notes during dr. kang's presentation/conversation. everything below is him.)
from his presentation:
- the best history books are the ones that defamiliarize the familiar.
- it's obvious that we lionize the defenders of the law, but why is it we also lionize the outlaws?
- you can find the bandit — robin hood —everywhere in the world. [...] they're not local variations of robin hood; this is a universal figure.
- every korean knows — or thinks they know — hong gildong. it's so steeped into their culture.
- there are 34 versions of hong gildong.
- it has to do with how popular stories were spread in the joseon dynasty. when stories got really popular, publishers would start publishing shorter and shorter versions to save paper.
- i actually thought [translating] this would be an easy task. even for most koreans, the premodern korean language is so difficult, and you also have to deal with how many chinese characters [there are].
- i found, to my horror, that there were these 34 different manuscirpts, so i had to go through them to decide which to translate and consult with scholars in korea as well.
- [note: there wasn't only the issue of having to decide with version was most accurate; there was also the issue of the cultural significance of what hong gildong represents to koreans. and then there was also what is being taught about hong gildong in schools in korea — he found out that it's all wrong.]
- the thing [all the scholars] complained about — why doesn't the latest research get out?
- this is such an important story. even for the majority of koreans who have never read it, it has such great resonance.
- this has to do with the problem of how korean literature is taught in schools. as you know, in korean schools, it's all about memorizing. so the way in which literature is taught, students aren't given entire works to read — they're given a couple paragraphs, and then, they're given 5-6 facts to memorize that will show up on the college entrance exam.
- [note: as it turns out, all 5-6 facts about hong gildong are wrong.]
- [note: in korea, you take one exam — the soo-neung — and that decides where you go. there's one test day every year in november, and it goes without saying that it is a big deal.]
from his conversation with ken chen:
- hong gildong represented so many things. for instance, in south korea alone, you have hong gildong as the enduring symbol of the fights against authority. and then you have hong gildong as this masculine symbol that men cannot really become. [...] there's so much lament about "i can't be like hong gildong!"
- one of the cliches about korean people is that we are a people filled with han. [...] i recently discovered that the notion of koreans being full of han was something that was come up by japanese people during the colonial era*. the concept of han did exist in the joseon dynasty, but you can't find a single writer who thought of it as a depiction of korean nature. [...] we adopted it unthinkingly when it's very recent and it's not even our tradition.
- [* because the japanese thought of koreans as savages, this idea of han as being central to koreans was pushed on them to explain koreans' sorrows. the more korean thing is that, while, yes, we do have han, which is very simplistically translated as a deep sorrow/melancholy, we also have heung, which is joy, and the two balance each other out.]
- when you read hong gildong as the classical text coming out of the joseon dynasty, there is no question that it's a product of a very patriarchal society.
- in 20th century versions, the gender stuff gets really interesting because, in every new version, there is a love interest.
- the suffering of women is used to measure the strength of men. [i.e. men should be able to protect their women. if the woman is harmed, the man should avenge her. it has nothing to do with the woman and everything to do with the man.]
- you see that in modern hong gildong stories. there's a woman who's harmed, and so hong gildong needs to jump in to save her.
- i think it has to do with how, during the colonial era, korean men were feminized under japanese colonialization.